Just the Treats, Please

The Straz Center’s self-serve candy station in Morsani Hall is a year-round Halloween dream come true. No tricks here. It’s just all candy all the time, and we love it.

Colorful Jelly Bean options up for grabs at the Candy Bar in Morsani Lobby.

Each year, we buy about 2,100 pounds of candy. That much candy is roughly the weight of two full-sized grand pianos.

Each month, our guests consume around 175 pounds of candy –about the average weight of a six-foot-tall man.

Guest get creative choosing their favorite candies to add to their candy boxes. Photo by Rob Harris.

The four favorites for Straz guests are M&Ms, peanut M&Ms, Swedish fish and a long strip of candy called a blueberry sour belt.

Erika Elias, our concessions manager chooses which candies go in the station. She does take employee suggestions to change up the selections from time to time.

Some experimental candy choices over the years included red hots, gummy sharks, warhead sour tears and candy pebbles.

Occasionally, Straz donors get to pick a few new candies for the jars. Their picks included banana candies, black licorice bites and cappuccino Jelly Bellies.

Erika rolls with the seasons, so candy corn may be in there this month and peppermint will appear for the holiday season.

Candy for all ages! A wide variety of flavors available at the candy bar.

Set in Stone (and Bronze)

This week we unveil the new collection of sculptures in Morsani Hall.

For quite some time, we’ve had the privilege of collaborating with the National Sculpture Society (NSS) in New York City thanks to a very special couple who has been with The Straz from the beginning. Well, even before the beginning since Jim Jennewein—The Straz connection to the NSS—was one of the original architects of our campus.

He and his wife Joan stayed involved with us all the years after, she on our Opera Tampa League Board and both as patrons, donors and overall genuinely lovely people who appreciate art in all its forms. The newest collection of sculptures, unveiled in Morsani Hall this week, stand in honor of the Jenneweins’ dedication to sculpture and art and their decades-long connection with the Straz Center.

The juried exhibit, Performance in Sculpture, invokes both literal and abstract notions of performance, resulting in some provocative works that are definitely worth a gander before your next show. We decided to use the blog this week to talk about what we love about a few of the new pieces, then you can go see them for yourself with the rest of the collection.

PUMA                                                                                                                                                                                    By Kristine Taylor                                                                                                                                        

WHAT WE LOVE: We’re cat people. We’re performing arts people. Which means we tend to think of cats as the embodiment of dance, music and theater rolled into one majestic creature. Kristine Taylor’s exquisite bronze likeness of the only big cat native to North America captures the artistic essence of puma concolor, a.k.a. the mountain lion or cougar (in Florida we call it a panther). The delicate point of the paw conjures a dancer’s leg, the arced body from tail to nose reminds us of a ligature in music and the potential energy—the cat is about to strike—creates quite the dramatic moment.

MARIAN ANDERSON                                                                                                                                             By Meredith Bergmann 

WHAT WE LOVE: Well, what’s not to love about Marian Anderson? One of the greatest singers of all time, Anderson’s contralto stirred the soul whether she was performing arias or spirituals. “Movement” is the word we think of when we think of Marian Anderson- her voice moved people, political will and social justice. Meredith Bergmann’s sculpture, while seemingly a static statue at first glance, reveals the swirling, sweeping grace not only of the woman herself but of the kinetic force she brought to the times in which she lived.

GOSSIP                                                                                                                                                                            By David Richardson                                                                                                                                        

WHAT WE LOVE: We are almost as big a fan of humor in fine art as we are of cats, and that’s saying something. David Richardson’s delicate and deliciously witty quintet of chickadees appears as unassuming art for the bird lover until you take a look at the title. Gossip suddenly transforms the seed-eating five into a cabal of possible frenemies. Now, the artwork begs the questions what are they talking about? What did that one chickadee do? Does this work answer the riddle of when do birds become catty? And that’s the kind of thinking we admire in fun visual art.

DRUM HORSE                                                                                                                                                            By Kathleen Friedenberg                                                                                                                          

WHAT WE LOVE: Of the 13 new works, Kathleen Friedenberg’s opus to the grand military purpose of the drum horse represents the classic Western European sculptural style. (There is another beauty recalling the traditional Greco-Roman style, but you will have to go see that one for yourself.) We note, off the bat, the sense of purpose charged in the horse’s gait, the diagonal lines of his legs contrasted by the ramrod straight posture of the soldier he carries. In bronze, this sculpture acts especially reflective both physically in the material’s sheen and metaphorically: Friedenberg notes that this sculpture emerges from her memory of growing up in England; it is, literally, the artist’s reflection of a time gone by. We also adore the meticulous detail work of the subjects, from the saddlecloth to the parallel “manes” on the soldier’s helmet and on the drum horse.

We hope you find even more to love about the new works in our Performance in Sculpture exhibit. There are nine more pieces besides these to enjoy, each with its own sense of awe and multiple points of contemplation. If you really love them, you’ll be happy to know each is available for purchase, with a portion of the acquisition price going to the Straz Center to support our mission.

The collection may be viewed by patrons attending performances in Morsani Hall. The collection may also be viewed by special arrangement during non-performance times. Contact the Straz Center’s director of guest services at 813.222.1062 for more information.

Shock Absorbers

Under a tight schedule, it takes eight weeks to replace one stage floor. Last summer, we had only five. And two enormous stages.

Life is not fair.

But, if you have a good sense of humor, it is funny.

Running The Straz takes an enormous amount of effort on what we call the “back end,” or, the aspects of show business that take place outside of the spotlights. The back-end includes building maintenance, groundskeeping, upgrading and repairing equipment, changing the umpteen thousand lightbulbs, replacing broken concrete on the walkways and other such things. We do our best to execute the work of the back-end during moments that are least disruptive to guests. Often, we get a slight lull in the action over the summer when we are between seasons. We dive into this lull tools a-blazing to address major projects, so when you arrive for the brand-new season you’re not greeted by backhoes, cherry-pickers and gates of orange construction netting. Instead, all is sparkly, shiny and ready to envelop you in a radiant bubble of wonderment, which is exactly why we’re here for you.

Last summer, we faced one of our greatest challenges yet. Because both stages sustained an exciting amount of action last season (compounded by the countless seasons before), replacing Ferguson and Morsani stages with upgraded materials landed on the top of the to-do list for summer chores.

Both stages. Ripped up, carted away, new flooring installed with tech upgrades, repainted and ready to rock and roll by Sept. 11. Which would have been okay if construction crews and our operations department had been able to start in June like normal. But, because we had Broadway summer shows and other gigs booked, the stages didn’t empty until the end of July.

Brand new Ferguson stage floor prior to being painted.

That circumstance left our intrepid and uber-busy Director of Operations C.J. Marshall staring down the barrel of a five-week deadline to replace both main stage floors on time and on budget before the biggest season in Straz history.

Insert sense of humor here.

“The first time we replaced Ferguson [stage], we had eight weeks to do it,” C.J. said. “So, yeah. It was a very, very tight timeline.”

C.J. sat down with pen and paper, sketching out a schedule of how to make it happen. He’d need three crews working about 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Then, maybe, the stages’ paint would be dry in time for Chicago to load in and the Hillsborough County Small Business Awards Show to set up on Ferguson.

Maybe. But there was no way they could do it if they had to complete the demolition, clean-up and prep before starting to lay the wood. “The flooring company normally sends about eight people to do the job. We had 22 people on-site. Once we demo’ed the initial 10 feet, the installers started working behind the demo team, starting to lay the new floor before the rest of the floor had been completely removed.” In this building-the-bridge-as-we-cross-it manner, crew relieving crew relieving crew, they steadily raced against the deadline that tick-tick-ticked on C.J.’s calendar with all the charm of the Doomsday Clock.

As with most theoretical calculations, C.J.’s were based on a perfect world. In addition to being unfair, life is also not perfect. “There’s so much of the floor we couldn’t see – everything that was underneath the top planks. As we demolished, we uncovered sections that had to be leveled or cleaned and re-cleaned. The crew would open the floor, and I’d see the condition and think that’s another three days; that’s another four days, all the while the date pushed closer to Chicago’s load-in. Would we make it in time? We had to. Somehow.”

Florida’s humidity, especially in the summer, invites mold and mildew like its throwing a block party. C.J. and his operations crew built a tent over the entire stage to create a negative vacuum; inside, they ran several air scrubbing and air sucking machines that cleaned the air of all dangerous spores. This set-up meant that not only were the floor crews sweating it out under an ambitious and possibly laughable deadline, they were doing it in Hazmat suits and respirators.

August came and went.

September arrived, bearing down on the looming arrival of Chicago. When the director of the Hillsborough County Small Business Awards Show arrived ten days before their event to check on the progress of the Ferguson stage replacement, he saw a giant plastic tarp draped over what appeared to be a half-finished stage – read: the other half was a rectangular hole – filled by men lumbering around in Tyvek suits using power tools. In essence, a scene straight from The X-Files. C.J. assured him all would be well, and the early days of September raced by.

“During this whole project,” C.J. says, “ … there were a lot of sleepless nights. But we made it on time.”

In fact, C.J. and his crews put forth so much effort, they finished two days ahead of schedule. There was plenty of time for Roxie, Velma and the outstanding small-business people of Hillsborough County to strut across our freshly painted, very dry, immaculately installed stages.

This cross-section of the Morsani stage shows the design details of a sprung floor.

“Ahead of schedule and on budget,” says C.J. “and we were able to install sprung floors on both stages as well as run about 12 miles of cable under Morsani stage to bring it up to digital standards, to give it a data and electrical infrastructure. Shows need connectivity on stage now, and we have it.” The sprung floors mean that a flexible brace under the planks provides “give,” like mild shock absorbers, to protect dancers’ muscles and joints from abrupt impact. The connectivity allows for access to power and network jacks without having to run temporary cables from set pieces to wall outlets. “I have to give a lot of credit to Ron Stevens of Trident Surfacing, who was our project manager, and Dave Reynolds, a Straz carpenter, who was our point person and really did a great job of keeping the crews going. We also couldn’t have done this project without the hard work of our production electricians, Leslie Bindeman and Jesse Perkins. We’re super excited about the new floors.”

So what happened to C.J. when they crossed the finish line 48 hours early?

“I left town and went and sat in the woods of North Carolina with no cell phone, no internet, no nothing for a week with my wife,” he laughs. “It was wonderful.”

Extraordinary Factoids about Our New and Improved Stage Floors

• Basketball courts also have sprung floors.
• The Morsani Hall stage floor can hold 9,000 pounds per square foot, about 50-70,000 pounds total.
• Both stages are Canadian maple.
• The Morsani stage is 9,500 square feet; the Ferguson stage is 5,000 square feet. That’s 14,500 square feet replaced in five weeks.
• The new floors should last about 20 years.
• Sprung floors also contain a little layer of neoprene, the same material of a wetsuit.
• The Morsani stage gets painted about four times a year because we have so many shows. There were 70 layers of paint on the old stage when they demolished it, adding up to almost a quarter inch.

Put Out the Light – and Then – Put Out the Light

Okay, okay, so Morsani and Ferguson Halls “going dark” for August may not be as dramatic as Othello in Desdemona’s bedchamber (who got the blog title reference?), but us taking a short time-out is important for a number of reasons. Want to know what secret stuff we’re up to in the big Straz venues? We’re happy to spill the beans.

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A view from backstage in Morsani Hall, looking up. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

It’s no secret that our hems are a little frayed, alright? We’re thirty years old. Millions—millions—of feet have trod the carpets, butts flopped in seats, hands run along the railings. We’ve grown at the speed of time-lapse so yes, maybe, just maybe, some of our tech is retro in the wrong ways. But when you’re presenting thousands of performances in five theaters all year long, when do you have time to stop and darn the curtains?

So, good people, we are taking a breather in August and early September to attend to several exciting capital projects, most of which will happen in Morsani Hall and Ferguson Hall. Of course, Jobsite Theater kicks off its amazing 20th anniversary season with a return of Spencer Meyers in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in the Shimberg Playhouse during this time, so we do have other theaters that will be up, running and cranking out incredible shows.

From Aug. 6-Sept. 11 our facilities, information technology, food and beverage, and production departments will be furiously updating our operations, grounds, and services. Both Morsani and Ferguson stage floors and sound systems will be replaced as well as the Patel Conservatory sidewalk. We’re upgrading our stage lighting equipment to LED (yay!) as well as chucking our infrared listening system for a brand-new mobile connect assisted listening system (read: new Wifi and an app are involved). Our print signs are going digital, so you’ll soon be seeing more video around campus, and we’re bringing in 21st century portable staging to replace the old stuff that is probably a contemporary of the original Cats.

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Stage lights in Ferguson Hall.

You’ll notice quite a few improvements around our cocktail activity with revamped concession stands, gleaming portable bars and new equipment at the Riverside bar. We have some non-sexy but crucial upgrades in stuff you probably won’t notice like new A/C coils, door replacements and spiffy new awnings. We’ll get automated rigging pipes in the Jaeb which makes heavy lifting and reconfiguration of set pieces easier.

So even though a few theaters will be dark, we’ll still be busy-busy making The Straz the stupendous experience you know and love. If you see any of our facilities or production staff on campus while you’re here for a show or a class, you may want to shock the life out of them by saying “good job” or “the new awnings look fantastic” since they are truly our unsung heroes and sheroes of The Straz.

As always, we thank you, good people, for your support of The Straz to fund these improvements that keep your experience magical and meaningful. We hope you’ll be as delighted with our shiny new hems as we are.

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The view from the stage in Morsani Hall.

Alicia Alonso: La Reina de Todo

Ella es la reina del baile. La reina de musica. La reina … de todo.

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Alicia Alonso, artistic director of Ballet Nacional de Cuba is such a superstar we gave her the Warhol treatment.

Ask Cubans “who is Alicia Alonso?“ and you will hear this short, comprehensive explanation: she is the queen of dance. The queen of music. The queen … of everything.

Alonso, born in Havana in 1920, possessed a gift for dance so profound, so prodigious that she and anyone who watched her early training knew she was a born legend. She became an instant star of American Ballet Theatre in the 1940s with searing portrayals of Giselle and Carmen that are still unequaled. She returned to Cuba in the ‘40s to establish professional classical ballet, and she did – creating one of the most rigorous, largest ballet schools in the world.

There is dance; then there is The Dance. Alicia Alonso is The Dance. They are synonyms. The words might as well be Spanish-to-English translations.

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Like everything else, dance and audience expectations of dance morphed with the digital age, ushering in a new era of commercial dance guided by the “wow” factor of competition dance broadcast on television reality shows and through social media. Often, today’s young dancers and companies possess hyper-flexibility, video-game standards of leaps and tricks and operatic emoting that, while exciting, suits a needs-to-go-viral aesthetic that misses the mark with The Dance.

Insulated and isolated from America after President Kennedy’s 1962 trade embargo, Alonso and Cuba worked, lived, loved and danced unaffected by the technological revolution. She taught and choreographed in the enduring timelessness of one anointed by the dance gods to transmit the heavenly conversation between dancers and their audiences. As Martha Graham noted, “dance is the language of the soul.”

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So it is with Ballet Nacional de Cuba. When they dance, it is a conversation of souls unlike any other ballet company. Alonso, la reina de todo, taught them that.

Alonso’s signature ballet, Giselle, arrives at the Straz Center on May 23 as part of an exclusive, limited American tour. The last time the company appeared at The Straz was in October 2003, so it’s been a long absence. The stop here this month, orchestrated in part by arts benefactor, Straz Center namesake and Liberian ambassador-at-large David A. Straz, Jr., took three years of negotiations and diplomacy. Straz, known for his enthusiastic embrace of the historic Tampa-Cuba connections and love of the island’s culture, visited Cuba the first time in 2001, eventually working on behalf of the Tampa Bay area’s Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.

 

As an informal cultural attaché for Tampa, Straz hosted a dinner party in Cuba between the Straz Center Board of Directors and President/CEO Judy Lisi and Cuba’s then-deputy minister of culture, Rosa Teresa Rodriguez, and the government representative for Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Because Cuba has such deep artistic roots in West Tampa, Ybor City and parts of Tampa proper, offering the country’s premier dance company a home on the Morsani stage seemed logical and necessary.

“It’s really important to Tampa to have them here because of the number of Cuban people who live here,” Straz says. “The places are so close to each other; we should have good relations. Their ballet is some of the finest in the world,” he continues. “Everyone should take the opportunity to see them; this is a big deal for Tampa, and who knows when the opportunity will come back. I hope Alicia will be able to come.”

Alonso, now in her mid-90s and almost completely blind after losing most of her eyesight early in her career, made an express trip to the ballet to sit with Straz during his visit to Cuba last October. In the state box at Gran Teatro de La Habana for an evening performance by Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Straz experienced the “Alicia effect” when she arrived, bedecked in her signature red head wrap with matching ruby red lipstick. Because of her health, Alonso had not been able to attend any other performances of the season.

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Catherine and David Straz (left) with Alicia Alonso and Ballet Nacional de Cuba staffers at The Gran Teatro de La Habana.

“I was with Alicia for the final performance of their season. She came that night and sat with me,” he says. “When she arrived, the place exploded in applause, everyone was on their feet. Everyone in the country knows her. At the end of the performance, she stood up in the box and leaned into the railing with her arms outstretched – it was such a balletic gesture and even at her age, so marvelous. There she is, in all red, arms outstretched, to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.”

Alonso and Straz spent time after the show conversing at length in her dressing room with the help of translators. “My Spanish is poquito,” he laughs. “That’s the extent of it. But she is so important. I invited her to Tampa. She said, ‘it’s possible.’ So, we’ll see.” Although a visit by the prima ballerina assoluta, the highest and rarest rank for a ballerina, is unlikely, we would love to host the grand dame of dance in the vivid red backdrop of Morsani Hall, befitting her majestic and magical legend.

GISELLE (cuerpo de baile) 002 Foto Carlos Quezada

Ballet Nacional de Cuba performing Giselle. (Photo: Carlos Quezada)

Ballet Nacional de Cuba performs their hallmark ballet Giselle on May 23 at 8pm in Morsani Hall. Get tickets here.

The Fine Art Mystery of Morsani Mezzanine

Dr. Jay and Ann McKeel Ross Art Exhibit

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A drawing of a robe. Toddler dresses. Abstract boxes in a row. What are these art works hanging unceremoniously on the walls of Morsani Mezzanine? Where did they come from? What do you mean some of the greatest visual artists in the world are on display at the Straz Center?

The Tampa Bay area is a land of many secrets.

Our history holds several little-known treasures: the West Tampa cigar workers who rolled the instructions for the first Cuban revolution into the cigar destined for Havana; Woodlawn Cemetery, which features a fairly nondescript section dedicated only to circus folk, and Keith Richards, whose stint at the Jack Tar Harrison Hotel in Clearwater churned out the guitar lick to “Satisfaction.”

Perhaps one of the most enduring and prolific gems in Tampa’s atlas of uniqueness is the University of South Florida’s Graphicstudio, an experiment in art and education started by artist and professor Dr. Don Saff in 1968 that goes strong right now, even as you read this.

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Rauschenberg in his studio with Graphicstudio staff Patrick Foy, Tom Pruitt and Donald Saff, working on In-Dependents/ROCI USA (Wax Fire Works) in 1990. (Courtesy of Saff Tech Arts. Photo: George Holzer)

USF Graphicstudio has provided, over the last several decades, a refuge and workspace for some of the most famous, most promising, most daring visual artists to push the evocative, provocative printmaking form. Graphicstudio holds a well-deserved revered status in the art world as a studio at the forefront of international fine art publishing. One of the first artists to work with them was none other than the innovative genius Robert Rauschenberg.

Although The Stones were making headlines in the ‘60s, the boundless eruption of experimental art flourishing in the United States had a home with a group of artists in New York inventing what would be known as Pop Art. Its purveyors – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg – pole-vaulted into the vaunted halls of fame, fashion, fortune (for some) and made art focusing on popular culture a “thing,” a “happening.” Soup cans transformed to colorful social commentary, collages aping advertising slicks erased boundaries between high and low art, and these artists purposefully muddied the waters around concerns with the interbreeding of politics and mass media, consumerism and community integrity. These artists built the complex platform of cultural questioning that each of us stands on today, and two of these Pop Art all-stars – Lichtenstein and Rosenquist – worked in Graphicstudio.

Rauschenberg

But before them came Rauschenberg, whose style, labeled Neo-Dada, built the scaffolding for the later work of the Pop Art movement. Rauschenberg is a legend. There’s no other way to put it. He was the one who reconsidered and reconfigured what constituted artistic materials. He put found objects on painted canvases and threw the distinction between sculpture and painting into a tailspin. Rauschenberg was the guy whose White Paintings – canvases covered in uniform strokes with nothing but white house paint – totally confounded the definition of art, making some people really angry and awakened others to a canvas’s possibility for the artistry in shadows or as a backdrop to the art of life. Rauschenberg’s audacity made people question their fundamental assumptions, which made him both loved and loathed, as most great artists are.

Contemporaries admired him, art historians uphold him as one of the most influential American artists of all time and critics continue to debate interpretations of his kitsch-meets-classical work style that upended the boundaries of what it means to make art. Rauschenberg spent years, from 1972-1987, in and out of Graphicstudio, an effort that resulted in 60 editions of prints that experimented with form and technique. Rauschenberg, with the dedication of USF faculty, staff and students, tested his ideas in photo transfer, cyanotype, sepia prints, printing on cloth and ceramics, new material sculptures and a hundred-foot-long photograph during his tenure with Graphicstudio. His works Made in Tampa Two, Made in Tampa Eleven and Made in Tampa Twelve now hang in the easily accessible pop-up gallery of the Morsani Mezzanine.

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Rauschenberg’s Pop Art contemporary, Rosenquist, noted for his deft and original use of juxtaposition, also has two works from his time with Graphicstudio on display in Morsani: Iris Lake and Discover Graphics Smithsonian. After noticing the Rauschenbergs and the Rosenquists, a leisurely stroll across the Mezzanine reveals the art placards carry one gigantic name after another:

• There are four Untitled works from the master maverick of the Pop Art era, Nicholas Krushenick, whose ultra-bold simplistic color blocks lined with black traces conjure an almost Simpsons-esque aesthetic – only 25 years before Matt Groening became a maverick in his own right. It’s worth noting that during this artistic time period, when almost everyone could be categorized somewhere from Op Art to Pop Art to post-Abstract Expressionism, Krushenick is the only one who defies category. He belongs everywhere and nowhere, which is an admirable feat among the wild bunch of enfants terribles cranking out art in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.

Krushenick

• Chuck Close, whose John I and John II appear near the staircase, is one of the last living giants of the age. His singular, mosaic-style of painting meticulous portraits from a grid, often using each 1×1 square as a minute canvas as part of the whole canvas, reinvented the art of portraiture.

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• Miriam Schapiro, the printmaking revolutionary who invented “femmage,” a collage-like style that must include at least seven of fourteen distinct criteria including scraps, sewing, patterns, photographs and a woman-life context, is represented by one of her most enduring works, Children of Paradise, created during her time at Graphicstudio from 1983-1984.

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• Jim Dine, Nancy Graves, Robert Stackhouse and the founder of Graphicstudio himself, Don Saff, all have work on the wall in Morsani mezzanine.

Graves, Dine, Stackhouse

That a collection so impressive, so unique hangs rather humbly in the Morsani Mezzanine raises a very important question: how did they get there? The answer lies with Jay and Ann McKeel Ross. Ann Ross, who moved to Tampa around the time that Rauschenberg was collaborating as set designer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company on Taylor’s 1957 The Tower, graduated from USF. Ann and her husband Jay loved Tampa, loved this area – and they loved art and culture. In 1968, they helped Saff start Graphicstudio, leveraging their relationships to create a pool of supporters to start a subscription program to help fund the artist residency. The subscribers, now called Research Partners, make an annual contribution to support the research mission. In return, they have opportunities to purchase work from Graphicstudio artists for a special price. (Note: anyone can buy full price Graphicstudio prints and sculptures from the studio’s website.)

A Straz Center trustee, Ann – along with her husband Jay – has been a long time donor to The Straz. She loaned these pieces of her personal collection for community enjoyment and appreciation of the fine work happening at Graphicstudio, which is now recognized as the nation’s leading university-based art research workshop.

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Ann and Jay Ross.

“Ann and Jay are the only collectors that have been members of the subscription program since its inception and therefore have a complete collection of prints and sculptures produced for our Research Partners over the last 50 years,” says Margaret Miller, the director of Graphicstudio. “They have been generous in loaning works from their collection. How fortunate we are to have Ann and Jay in our community. They continue to demonstrate their commitment to advancing art and culture in this region.”

We are very proud and honored to be able to exhibit such a high caliber of work in an open community space like the Morsani Mezzanine, and we encourage you, on your next visit to The Straz, to come early and spend some time with the pieces from Ann and Jay’s collection. If you would like to get involved with Graphicstudio, check out their website: graphicstudio.usf.edu.

 

The Theater Above the Theater

Fly systems, rigging systems, whatever you want to call them, just know there’s a very serious show happening in the 60-plus feet of air above the show on stage.

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Looking up into the “fly space” on the side of the Morsani stage. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

One of the wondrous aspects of theatrical life, even from its beginnings, is the delightful mix of labor, craft and personalities required to pull off a show soup to nuts. In the performing arts world, the blue collar meets the sequined collar, toe shoes meet steel-toed boots and the Type A work ethic unites all the players from the star of the show to the spotlight operator. If you understand theater as a living organism, you understand that everyone is equally vital.

However, what remains seen on stage normally gets the lion’s share of attention. But what about what (and who) you can’t see?

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A micro-view of the intricate knots used to anchor the Morsani Hall fly system. Theater fly systems were modeled after seafaring lines and rigs used for large sailing vessels. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

A show – especially at the scale of Broadway and grand opera – simply cannot happen if the “theater magic” isn’t engineered with mathematical precision. Often, enormous, heavy set pieces float up and down, in and out of scenes to denote setting changes or to enhance show numbers. For fans of The Lion King, Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, you know the primal thrill of seeing the beloved characters take flight, spin through the air, leap across rooms or glide into the show via umbrella.

These theatrical feats execute through the fly system, or rigging system, which is an elaborate superstructure of ropes, pulleys, bars, weights and fasteners that make lighting, scene changes and flying people possible. From the audience, the fly system remains invisible, but if you’ve ever wondered why professional theaters are so ungodly tall, that’s why: there needs to be a tremendous amount of space above the stage to store the show’s pieces out-of-sight, suspended over the stage to be released and hoisted on cue during the performance. We have about 70 feet of “fly space” in Morsani Hall to accommodate the large-scale theatrics of Broadway and opera.

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Along the side wall of Ferguson Hall stage, you can see the ropes and weights on the flyrail.

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Further up the wall, almost to the top of the fly system.

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At the very top of the Ferguson stage “fly space” are all of the pulleys.

Our production team, the “boots on the ground” who rig each incoming show, sends a schematic called an “advance” to the show that outlines the technical capabilities of Ferguson or Morsani (or whatever house the show will be using). The show, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I which will be in Morsani May 2-7, then gives our team a detailed blueprint, similar to an architectural rendering, of measurements, dimensions, set pieces, weight of each set piece, etc., so our team will have a heads-up for what to expect when the show loads in.

Here’s where it gets mortally serious.

Rigging a show – that is, hooking hundreds or thousands of pounds of equipment to hang over the heads of human beings walking underneath – is no joke. The riggers themselves (often noted as the cowboys of theater) often must work at death-defying heights to secure the heavy set pieces, hang lighting and load counterweights for each metal bar that brings objects in and out of scenes.

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Side lights hanging from a bar.

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About half way up to the grid above Ferguson stage.

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Almost to the top of the “fly space.” You can see the metal bars and curtains hanging and the grid directly above.

“Communication is very important between the flyman, the carpenter on the deck, the weight loaders and the rigging crew to work safely and not hurt anyone,” says Straz Center flyman Dave Reynolds. “Many of these moves are made during the show, and they’re done in blackouts with cast and crew on stage. Any massive piece of scenery that moves needs to be coordinated properly for safety. I get to do something I love every day as well. I take my job here very seriously and strive to be one of the best flymen the country.”

The most dangerous job in theater is setting up the rigging for a show and taking it down at the end of the run. If an opera uses a 700-pound backdrop, that backdrop is hung on a “pipe” or metal bar that is controlled by a rope or “line.” The line needs 700 pounds of counterweight on it to achieve what is called a “balanced load.” The rigger sets a hand brake on the line to secure it in place. When it’s show time, the flyman pops the brake, guiding the line with the balanced load, and the audience sees the smooth, light entrance and exit of a 700-pound backdrop. What the audience never sees is the extreme safety precautions riggers take to make sure they never drop 50-pound counterweights from a catwalk 45 feet in the air or drop pipes from the same height. Or miscalculate and drop a 700-pound backdrop on Lieutenant Pinkerton.

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View of the side of Ferguson stage looking down from the grid at the very top of the “fly space.” See that tiny piano on the stage?

So, the effortless appearance of scenery or characters swooping in from the wings or down from the “ceiling” actually requires quite a bit of effort, engineering, safety expertise and chutzpah from men and women who don’t get dressing rooms but do get to star in one of the most important roles in any theater production.